Since people love coffee, it's no surprise that they would start pairing it with their other favorite drinks. Coffee beer is bringing brewers and roasters together, but it's not the only pairing on the booze front — coffee cocktails are also exploding.
Just as coffee and cream was the standard caffeine drink for decades, everyone probably knows about Irish coffee, a combination of hot coffee, Irish whiskey, and sugar. But fortunately, as both coffee and cocktail cultures have evolved over the past couple of decades, so have the drinks. Mixologists are coming up with many more modern options than just hot coffee, booze, and cream.
Why Does Coffee Work So Well in Cocktails?
In fact, nowadays it is not uncommon to see craft cocktails being served in coffee shops, like Slipstream in Washington, D.C.; Hodges Bend in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Portola Coffee Lab's Theorem in Costa Mesa, California. And if you've spent time in any craft cocktail bars recently, you've probably seen a coffee-inspired drink on the menu.
Part of that has to do with the people seeking out their drink. "The same folks who enjoy discovering the more refined elements of coffee and tea, are people who seek out the quality of a finely crafted cocktail. We're kindred spirits (pun intended)," says Tom Brown, bar manager at Slipstream. "Coffee displays a combination of good aromatics, fruit flavors, acidity, and bitter elements. Same as a good cocktail."
In terms of an ingredient, coffee also has a lot to offer a bartender. "Coffee is incredibly complex, so it offers a lot of possibilities. It seems to play especially well with sugarcane spirits, and lends itself to pairings with chocolate, vanilla, or anise," says Jacob Grier, bartender, coffee lover, and author of Cocktails on Tap. "And after a big dinner or a night of drinking, a little caffeine can be most welcome!"
This trend might seem new, but as Brown points out, "It's almost guaranteed that as long as coffee has existed, people have been putting booze in it. Or vice versa." In fact, you'll find coffee and booze combinations in a lot of cultures, from Sweden to Mexico.
Tips for Making Coffee Cocktails at Home
For at-home bartending, making a good coffee cocktail means applying the same rules that you use when making a good cup of coffee. "At home or in a bar, it's important to keep in mind everything you would for making straight coffee. Make sure your beans are fresh, grind them appropriately for the brew method you're using, and don't let the brewed coffee sit too long," says Grier. "Coffee can be tricky to work with since there are so many steps along the way where things could go wrong; it's not as simple to use as opening a bottle or squeezing a citrus fruit."
Don't be afraid to think outside of the box either. "People generally think of the dark, roasty notes of coffee, but the fruity, citrusy flavors in some coffees are also available to work with," says Grier. For that, you might want to opt for a coffee from Kenya or Ethiopia.
It's also important to remember proportions. According to Brown, "Coffee is a great mixer. As with any other cocktail ingredient, proportions are key. Tip the balance of any drink with too much of any component, and your concoction is ruined." Beyond that, just like with cooking a good meal, it's all about the ingredients you use.
"The quality of the coffee matters. Any cocktail recipe is only as good as its components." Brown also adds: "Don't use leftovers ... every ingredient needs to be in its prime."
You can work with freshly brewed coffee and make things like a Hot Coffee Grog or Anise Cream Coffee. For colder drinks, try the South of No North, made with cold brew and tequila, or add cold coffee to a White Russian for a twist.
How Should You Brew Coffee for Coffee Cocktails?
How you use coffee in a cocktail depends on personal taste. "I tend to either use a fresh-brewed coffee, or sometimes the 'Japanese method' of cold brew, where concentrated hot coffee is poured over ice that melts and brings the coffee to the proper dilution. This method seems to bring out more of the bright notes than steeping at cold temperatures," says Grier.
But he points out that even fresh coffee beans can be used to make a tasty drink. "I also like using coffee beans for infusions, whether in spirits or in bitters."
→ More ways to add a dash of coffee: If you are looking to keep a coffee ingredient on-hand for making cocktails, try homemade coffee bitters. You can also easily make your own coffee liqueur.
Two Coffee Cocktail Recipes from the Pros
Grier shares with us one of his top picks for a coffee cocktail; it's as simple as Ramazzotti liqueur and fresh coffee beans. For a drink he dubs the Quick Little Pick-Me-Up, he lightly muddles 10 grams coffee beans to crack (but not pulverize) them. Seal in a glass jar with 8 ounces Ramazzotti liqueur. Infuse for 24 hours, strain, and bottle. If you want to make more, just scale the recipe upward.
To serve, pour two ounces in a glass with a big rock and express a lemon peel over the drink. Garnish with the peel.
The team at Slipstream calls this second drink Tiki Coffee — a coffee cocktail with a tropical twist.
Shake 1 ounce aged rum (Slipstream uses El Dorado 5 Yr Guyanan) with 1 ounce allspice liqueur, 1 ounce pineapple juice, 1 ounce almond milk (Slipstream uses a house-made almond-cashew blend) and 1 ounce medium-body, fruit-forward, chilled coffee. Serve in a tall Collins glass, and top with grated nutmeg.
Enjoy, and tell us: do you have any favorite cocktail and coffee combinations?
(Image credits: Michael Graydon + Nikole Herriott for Bon Appetit; Jamie Oliver; Capture By Lucy; Julia Raymond)